“Knowledge” refers to the Order of Taharot

This parshah deals primarily with laws of tumah and taharah: tzaraat on people and on houses and the tumah of a zav and a zava1 and of a menstruant woman. Whoever studies these subjects in detail discovers – as Maimonides writes in his introduction to the Order of Taharot – that even if he were to learn the laws of tahara a thousand times, he still would not know them, since they are so complex, complicated, and inter­connected. The principles of the laws are not so complicated, but the details are so intricate that they are almost impossible to absorb.

Commenting on the verse, “There shall be faith in your times, strength, salvation, wisdom, and knowledge,”2 the Talmud states, “‘Faith’ refers to the Order of Zera’im; ‘your times’ refers to the Order of Moed; ‘strength’ refers to the Order of Nashim; ‘salvation’ refers to the Order of Nezikin; ‘wisdom’ refers to the Order of Kodashim; ‘knowledge’ refers to the Order of Taharot.”3

According to this interpretation of the verse, there appears to be a progression in the level of difficulty of the respective orders. The first orders, including the Order of Nezikin, are considered relatively easy to learn and understand, while the last two orders are notoriously difficult. This can be seen in the Talmud, where R. Acha asks a question relating to damages, and he is told, “When we get to [Tractate Zevachim] – ask your question there.”4 In other words, the difficult questions are reserved for Zevachim, the first tractate in the Order of Kodashim, while the easy questions are asked in Nezikin. Now, in comparison to Taharot, even Kodashim seems simple and uncomplicated. It is virtually impossible to explain all the detailed laws of tumah and taharah, and it is even difficult to map out even a general framework for them.

Why are the orders of Kodashim and Teharot so difficult? The reason is that in the other orders, it is possible to follow the logic that guides the discussion, even without a strong knowledge base. Since the main line of thought is usually straightforward, it is possible to predict what will happen next and what the subject of the next discussion will be. When studying Kodashim, it is impossible to find the path within the maze. Even if one knows what the law is in the case of a guilt offering, for example, one cannot infer from this what the law will be in the case of the sin offering. It is very difficult to point to an inner logic within the various topics. In Taharot, the situation is similar. There exist review books that contain tables and charts explaining the laws of tumah and taharah, and it is plain to see that there is not even one guiding principle within these books, not only for the general categories of tumah, but even for the various details within each unique type of tumah. Thus, for example, there are aspects in which the tumah of a zav is stricter than the tumah of a corpse, whereas in other aspects the tumah of a corpse is stricter than even the tuma of a metzora.

One thing is clear: Tumah has nothing to do with uncleanness, a common misconception. It is not without reason that the concept of tumah does not exist in other languages, and that includes even related languages such as Aramaic. In the Aramaic Targumim, the usual translation for tamei is mesaav, a word that serves as the translation of meluchlach (unclean) as well. Apparently, in Aramaic there is no word that corresponds precisely to the term tamei, and the same is true in English and other languages. In other languages it is always necessary to explain the term tumah with several other words, as it has its own distinctive character that does not exist in those languages.

Throughout history, and especially in recent generations, people have tried to explain that the laws of tumah and taharah are related to hygiene and physical health. These explanations are wrong, both in their general thrust and in their details. Even a superficial analysis of the laws of tumah is enough to demonstrate clearly that these explanations are off the mark.

For example, one might have thought that the metzora is sent outside the camp so that he should not infect others. But a study of the detailed laws reveals that, as Maimonides stated (Commentary on the Mishnah, Nega’im 12:5), there exists no disease that fits the description of tzaraat in the Talmud and in halachah. Indeed, such a disease would be a scientific impossibility, and thus it is certainly not contagious.

Maimonides’ conclusion is that tzaraat is actually a miraculous event. We probably have no idea at all what tzaraat on houses is or what tzaraat on garments is, and even the tzaraat that appears on people cannot be classified as a disease. In fact, our sages explain that, in principle, the nations of the world should never be afflicted with tzaraat, because essentially the whole matter of tzaraat pertains to Jews alone. However, in practice, they, too, get tzaraat, so that they should not say to the Jews: “You are a nation of metzora’im.”5

There are also various esoteric explanations regarding tzaraat, and their common denominator is that tzaraat has nothing at all to do with hygiene.

Tuma and tahara – life and death

It is possible perhaps to nevertheless attempt to give a very general explanation for the entire framework of tumah and taharah.

Throughout the Torah, from Genesis onward, the world is divided into two poles: life and death, and correspondingly, good and evil: “life and good,” “death and evil.”6 These matters are presented to us as the two extremes of existence, and every other element of existence falls on the spectrum between these two poles.

Death is presented in our literature not as a normal, natural phenomenon, but as a result of sin. Jewish thinkers throughout history have written that sin and death therefore are forever intertwined. The connection between them appears, for example, in the following interpretation: On the words “engraved (charut) on the Tablets,”7 our sages expound, “Do not read ‘charut’ (engraved) but ‘cherut’ (freedom), for no man is truly free unless the Angel of Death has no power over him…and as a result of their idolatry [at the sin of the Golden Calf] the Angel of Death came upon them.”8

Likewise, the relation between tumah and taharah can be explained on the basis of this division. By way of analogy, it can be said that the creation of tumah resembles the production of a magnetic field. A magnetic field is produced when a drastic change occurs in an electric field. One of the ways this can happen is when an electric current that is moving through metal suddenly stops, in which case magnetization occurs. The new phenomenon is produced at the point of change, whether it is change from one extreme to the other or a more limited change. Similarly, tumah is produced when the complete current of life within an entity is stopped, whether in its entirety or in only one respect. Take, for example, the tumah of a corpse. This tumah occurs not because the corpse is not alive, nor because it used to be alive, but because it used to be alive and then this condition suddenly stopped.

What also emerges from the notion of the connection to life and death is a principle that applies throughout the laws of tumah. The stronger the current of life, the more intense the tumah will be if and when that life is stopped and cut off. The more life force that exists in an entity, the more intense the tumah generated by the negation of that life force will be. Conversely, the less life force that is in an entity, or the lower the level of its life, the less the tumah generated by the negation of its life force will be. We may not be able to explain all the minor questions of the laws of tumah and taharah, but this theory at least helps explain the overarching structure of these laws, in a general sense.

According to Taharot, the most severe form of tumah is that of a corpse. This is because when a person dies, the cessation of the current of life is the most drastic cessation of taharah possible. And when the deceased is a Jew, the tumah reaches its maximum height. When the deceased is not a Jew, the essence of his life was not quite so high, so the tumah generated by the cessation of that life is similarly less. This explains the seemingly paradoxical fact that a deceased Jew conveys tumah more than a deceased non-Jew does, and that a deceased human being conveys tumah more than a dead animal does. A deceased Jew conveys tumah more than a non-Jew because the life current that was stopped was on a higher level, and for the same reason, a deceased non-Jew conveys tumah much more than a cow does.

On a related note, not everything that dies conveys tumah. Creatures that we consider to lack a life force even when alive do not become tamei upon their death. According to the Talmud,9 a dead snake does not convey tumah. This is strange, as we usually think of a snake as the lowest animal in the world. Yet a snake does not convey tumah, neither when alive nor when dead. In truth, this should not be so surprising; a dead snake does not convey tumah because its life force is not sufficient enough to generate tumah. Tumah is produced by a fracture, by the tension of the sudden contrast between complete vitality and death. But when a creature is inherently insignificant, its death, too, is insignificant and does not generate tumah.

The basic concept is that tumah accompanies death or crisis, whether it is big or small; but while the entity is complete and healthy, it does not become tamei.

A simple example of this is the tumah of the menstruant woman. This tumah is connected to the natural destruction of life that is part of the woman’s menstrual cycle. This is destruction not of actual life but of the lost potential for fertilization. As a result, the actual unfertilized egg cells that could have developed into new life are destroyed and flushed out of the body, and tumah results. It is still a normal occurrence and not considered an illness, yet it is connected with this same element of destruction – a partial form of death – and this, too, results in tumah.

A similar example is the tumah that results from a seminal emission. Even in the context of marital relations, and even if the relations result in procreation, an inevitable result of seminal emission is loss, a type of death. Each drop of semen contains a huge number of living cells, each cell carrying the potential for life, and the great majority of the cells – even in the best-case scenario of fertilization – are lost.

According to our literature, the white spot of a tzaraat mark indicates that something has died in that part of the body. If one looks at the symptoms of tzaraat that are described in the Torah, it seems that they serve to distinguish between tzaraat and ordinary illness. There are cases where the Torah says, “it is scar tissue from the infection,”10 or, “it is merely scar tissue from the burn,”11 and therefore the mark is tahor. When the symptom is a result of an infection or other medical ailment, it may not be pleasant, but it is not tzaraat. When, however, the condition deprives the person of his life force, it is no longer defined as an illness, but is considered an impure affliction.

A zava experiences an impairment of her body’s vitality as well. It is a result of a severe hormonal imbalance that prevents the woman from conceiving a new life, which explains the basis for its tumah.


The intrinsic connection between the concepts of tumah and taharah and the life force of the entity apparently also applies to the distinction between things that are susceptible to tumah and those that are not. In the thirty chapters of Tractate Kelim, there are countless details that can drive a person crazy, but there are also several major principles, one of which is that the more perfect the vessel and the higher its quality, the more susceptible it is to tumah. This progression extends from high-quality metal vessels to low-quality earthenware vessels. If we were to understand tumah per se as a type of defect, this progression would be surprising. It would seem counterintuitive that a perfect and beautiful vessel would be susceptible to tumah, while an inferior or defective vessel would not be. In reality, however, the logic is just the opposite: Sensitivity to tumah requires some level of perfection.

A similar concept can be observed in the tumah of vessels. A metal vessel becomes tamei even if it has no receptacle. A wooden vessel requires a receptacle in order to be considered a utensil; but once it is labeled a utensil, it can become tamei through its outer surface as well; whereas an earthenware vessel cannot become tamei through its outer surface.12

At first glance, this is quite puzzling. Why should an earthenware vessel not become tamei through its outer surface? According to an explanation attributed to the Kotzker Rebbe, an earthenware vessel is a utensil not by virtue of the material from which it is made but only in that it is a receptacle. Therefore, when something tamei touches the vessel’s outer surface, the vessel does not itself become tamei, because its material is insignificant. Only when something enters the earthenware vessel’s inner space, the part of the vessel that determines its status as a utensil, can the vessel become tamei, because only then does the vessel reach a level where it is even relevant to speak of tumah.

The key of childbirth

The section of the parshah that deals with the metzora is preceded by the section on the tumah of a woman who has just given birth, and this in itself is truly striking. Why should the laws of tumah begin precisely with this form of tumah? After all, other forms of tumah are much more common and no less severe. Why, then, did the Torah choose to begin with the tumah that follows childbirth? Furthermore, in light of our explanation of tumah as a decline in life force, this tumah seems doubly anomalous.

Regarding tumah following childbirth, the Kotzker Rebbe said as follows: According to the Talmud, three keys remain in G‑d’s hand alone and were not entrusted to any emissaries: the key of rain, the key of childbirth, and the key of the revival of the dead.13 Since the key of childbirth is in G‑d’s hand, then apparently His spirit is present during the birth, after which it immediately departs – and this is the source of the tension that generates tumah. The tumah is generated not because the birth is something inherently tamei – on the contrary, it is a time when new life comes into the world – but because the birth involves a gulf between a high and a subsequent low, evoking the gulf between life and death.

The highly charged experience of childbirth and the fall from this high shortly thereafter derive from various aspects of the experience. First of all, the birth itself is an incredible miracle: One life is growing and developing inside another. We often take this for granted; we know how it happens and assume that it is natural. But in truth, the whole phenomenon of pregnancy, in which a woman bears two lives that suddenly separate from each other, is nothing short of miraculous. We hear a sense of wonder in Eve’s exclamation of amazement and excitement upon giving birth to the world’s first child: “I have acquired a man together with G‑d!”14 Eve reflects on the birth and exclaims, “Look what happened! I did something together with G‑d; I made a human being!”

From the physical, physiological standpoint, too, the process of childbirth is very similar to every other circumstance that creates tumah. Pregnancy demands tremendous changes in the way the body functions. Throughout the pregnancy, there is a continuous miracle transpiring in the mother’s body, a miracle of creation, to which every other bodily function must adjust. When the process of childbirth begins, all of the body’s systems speed up dramatically; massive releases of adrenaline and other hormones advance the labor vigorously, eventually enabling the birth of a child. Then, immediately after the birth, this unique and exceptional process, the miracle of creation, everything stops, not gradually but all at once. The chasm is huge. One moment the world is full of wonder, and the next moment it is already gone. The great disparity is what creates the tumah.

The intensity of this abrupt change is reflected, in a sense, in the phenomenon of post-partum depression. Most women experience a slight, fleeting feeling of sadness after giving birth, but sometimes this feeling turns into severe depression, which can be traumatic for both the mother and her family.

Even after all of this, we must remember and acknowledge that although we may have illuminated one general aspect of the laws of tumah and taharah, we will never truly be able to understand all of the complexities of these laws; questions will always remain. As King Solomon said regarding the laws of the red cow, “I left no wisdom in the world that I did not understand, but when I got to the section on the red cow ‘I said, “I will get wisdom,” but it was far from me’1516